Small vape stores’ sales va­por­ize

Ill­nesses’ causes still un­cer­tain, but fall­out hurt shops

The Morning Call - - BUSINESS CYCLE - By Joyce M. Rosen­berg

NEW YORK — The thou­sands of shops that sprang up in cities and towns across the coun­try over the past decade to sell va­p­ing prod­ucts have seen a stun­ning re­ver­sal of for­tune, with their sales plung­ing in just two months amid news re­ports that va­p­ing has sick­ened nearly 1,300 peo­ple and killed 26.

Peo­ple who turned to va­p­ing prod­ucts to help them quit smok­ing have been turn­ing away, even teenagers who used the prod­ucts il­le­gally, although the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol says most of the peo­ple who suf­fered lung in­juries from va­p­ing were us­ing prod­ucts con­tain­ing THC, a com­po­nent of mar­i­juana.

One es­ti­mate says 200 va­p­ing stores have closed, while some own­ers re­port the loss of nearly three-quar­ters of their rev­enue. Some vape shops have been forced to lay off staff. Many own­ers, former smok­ers them­selves, fear cus­tomers will go back to smok­ing cig­a­rettes.

Spike Baba­ian says busi­ness is down as much as 70% at her three New York va­p­ing shops since re­ports about peo­ple be­ing sick­ened by va­p­ing prod­ucts be­gan ap­pear­ing in Au­gust.

Baba­ian just closed a fourth store rather than take a chance on re­new­ing her lease. She wor­ries about not be­ing able to re­coup the lost rev­enue.

“We can never undo the gov­ern­ment go­ing on the news and say­ing it’s not safe to vape. The dam­age has been done,” says Baba­ian, who has been in busi­ness for eight years.

Fed­eral health of­fi­cials have yet to pin­point the ex­act cause of the ill­nesses and deaths. While they search, they are ad­vis­ing Amer­i­cans to re­frain from us­ing any va­p­ing prod­ucts.

Steve Nair has had to lay off five of the 40 em­ploy­ees at his eight va­p­ing stores in four states; his sales are down by half.

“I had to meet with them a few weeks ago and say, ‘things aren’t look­ing good,’ ” Nair said.

The sto­ries are sim­i­lar at the es­ti­mated 15,000 to 19,000 small busi­nesses across the coun­try that sell va­por­iz­ers and va­p­ing flu­ids used as a sub­sti­tute for smok­ing.

Sales dropped pre­cip­i­tously as cus­tomers were fright­ened away by the first gov­ern­ment re­ports of peo­ple sick­ened or dy­ing af­ter va­p­ing. The CDC has since said most of the nearly 1,300 ill­nesses re­ported were due to liq­uids con­tain­ing THC, which gives users the high they’re seek­ing from mar­i­juana. Those prod­ucts are sold il­le­gally on the black mar­ket, not in neigh­bor­hood stores.

Many peo­ple are still shy­ing away from main­stream va­p­ing prod­ucts and the im­pact on the in­dus­try is pro­nounced. Greg Con­ley, a spokesman for the Amer­i­can Va­p­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, an in­dus­try group, says 200 stores closed since Aug. 1, a num­ber he calls “a con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate.”

Calls by gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in­clud­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and the gover­nors of states in­clud­ing Mas­sachusetts, Michi­gan and New York for bans on sales of va­p­ing prod­ucts are in­creas­ing own­ers’ anx­i­ety. A four-month ban on sales is in ef­fect in Mas­sachusetts. In New York, Gov. An­drew Cuomo wants to ban sales of fla­vored va­p­ing liq­uids. Those prod­ucts are tar­geted be­cause of their ap­peal to youth­ful vapers, but they ac­count for the ma­jor­ity of sales to all users, in­clud­ing adults.

“That would prob­a­bly put us out of busi­ness pretty quickly. We sell only these prod­ucts; there’s noth­ing else to fall back on,” says Nair, whose stores in­clude one in Buf­falo, New York.

The CDC re­ported in 2017 that nearly 7 mil­lion adults, or 2.8 per­cent of the coun­try’s adult pop­u­la­tion, used va­p­ing prod­ucts. Last year, it counted 3.6 mil­lion mid­dle and high school stu­dents who were us­ing va­p­ing prod­ucts. Un­der Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion reg­u­la­tions, re­tail­ers can­not sell va­p­ing prod­ucts to peo­ple un­der 18, and more than a third of the states have higher min­i­mum ages. Store own­ers are re­quired to ver­ify a cus­tomer’s age when they en­ter a store.

James Jarvis be­gan see­ing sales at his five Va­por Sta­tion stores in Cen­tral Ohio slow in early Au­gust and the drop ac­cel­er­ated into Septem­ber.

“All you were hear­ing were head­lines say­ing it was mak­ing peo­ple sick and killing them. It doesn’t do much for con­sumer con­fi­dence,” he says.

While the in­dus­try might not elicit much sym­pa­thy be­cause of crit­i­cism that it sells nico­tine prod­ucts to mi­nors, in­dus­try groups warn of the po­ten­tial con­se­quences of any ban for the many smok­ers who used va­p­ing to quit cig­a­rettes.

In­deed, some own­ers are hear­ing from some former cus­tomers that they’ve gone back to cig­a­rettes. Own­ers fear they’ve lost that busi­ness for­ever, but they also worry about the health of peo­ple who they’ve got­ten to know well.

“They’re just gone. We lost about half our cus­tomers,” says Todd Donk, who has one Zook’s Va­por store in Bartlett, Ten­nessee. He av­er­aged about $30,000 in sales each month be­fore cus­tomers fled.

“One guy told me yes­ter­day, ‘my fam­ily told me to go back to smok­ing. They’d rather see me smoke than vape,’ ” Donk says.

That is frus­trat­ing and dis­heart­en­ing for va­p­ing store own­ers; many started their busi­nesses af­ter suc­cess­fully us­ing the prod­ucts to wean them­selves off cig­a­rettes, says Dim­itris Agrafi­o­tis, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ten­nessee Smoke Free As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents more than 100 small busi­nesses in the va­p­ing in­dus­try.

“They opened up these busi­nesses to help peo­ple stop smok­ing,” he says. Many own­ers do more than just sell prod­ucts; they help cus­tomers find the right va­por­iz­ers and liq­uids to fit their needs.

Missy Pilk­ing­ton Cur­rie smoked two packs of cig­a­rettes a day be­fore try­ing va­p­ing prod­ucts and then start­ing her busi­ness in 2014. Now, “98% of my cus­tomers are peo­ple try­ing to stop smok­ing,” she says.

Cur­rie counted un­der 600 cus­tomer vis­its to her Vape Scape store in Hobbs, New Mex­ico, in Septem­ber, down from nearly 1,700 in Septem­ber 2018. Her sales are down nearly 60% from last year.

As they fight to sur­vive, own­ers of va­p­ing stores are re­ly­ing on loy­alty and the hope that peo­ple will come to re­al­ize that the prod­ucts they sell are safe.

Nair says cus­tomers who have been va­p­ing safely for years are still com­ing in.

“Some have been with us for 10 years,” Nair says. “They’re still con­fi­dent in the prod­uct and are still shop­ping with us.”

Own­ers are hop­ing that as more peo­ple hear the CDC’s de­ter­mi­na­tion that the ma­jor­ity of ill­nesses weren’t caused by prod­ucts sold in va­p­ing shops cus­tomers will re­turn.


Spike Baba­ian said busi­ness is down as much as 70% at her three New York va­p­ing stores. She closed a fourth store.

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